On March 17, 2009, the Haidian District Judicial Bureau in Beijing ordered a six-month shutdown of Yitong, the Beijing law firm well known for handling controversial and sensitive cases. The Bureau said that the firm violated the law in allowing a lawyer, Li Subin (李苏滨), to work without a license. However, lawyers at the firm said that most likely the authorities wanted to punish the firm because of its ongoing participation in cases that challenged authorities and because some of its lawyers were among the signers of a public appeal in August 2008 that called for direct election of the Beijing Lawyers Association.1 Li Subin said that the action against Yitong is meant as “killing one person to warn 100.”2
The firm was established in January 2004 by three lawyers—Li Jingsong (李劲松), Song Lihong (宋丽红), and Yu Jiabin (于佳斌)—who believe in the foundational principles of fairness, justice, and the rule of law. As of February 2009, it employed 12 staff lawyers and several assistants. Over the years, it defended cases that few other law firms in the country would be willing to defend, and dared to expose official misconduct with lawsuits and public criticism.
In a country where justice is often subservient to official power, what brought down Yitong was not its incompetence or substandard work, but rather, its continuous efforts to help the country achieve an independent judiciary and genuine rule of law. Following are some examples of Yitong’s work.3
Defending the defenders. Yitong has represented underdogs and rights defenders, including:
Disclosing Judicial Misconduct. The firm disclosed that government officials were suspected of having committed “dereliction of duty” in the Yang Jia case in 2008.5
Suing Government Agencies. Yitong filed lawsuits with district courts in Beijing against the Public Security Bureaus for illegal activities in managing the hukou system in 2008.6 It also sued the Capital Airport Highway Authority.
Calling for an Independent Bar. Yitong lawyers organized the appeal for direct elections within the Beijing Lawyers Association.
1.For details, see Jerome Cohen, “The Struggle for Autonomy of Beijing’s Public Interest Lawyers,” in this issue. ^
2. HRIC interview with Li Subin (February 2009).^
3. Yitong Law Firm [忆通律师事务所], “Beijing shi Yitong lüshi shiwusuo gonggao ji Haidian sifaju tingzheng tongzhi” [北京市忆通律师事务所公告暨海淀司法局听证通知], February 20, 2009, http://www.bj580.com/html/yitongzixun/20090220/469.html.^
5. Luo Jieqi [罗洁琪], “Beijing Yitong lüsuo tingye chufa zhengyi” [北京忆通律所停业处罚争议], Caijing [财经], March 4, 2009, http://www.caijing.com.cn/2009-03-04/110111427.html. For details of Yang Jia’s case, see Eva Pils, “Yang Jia and China’s Unpopular Criminal Justice System,” in this issue. ^
6. HRIC interview with Yitong lawyers, March 2008. ^